RANCHO MIRAGE, CALIFORNIA | Maybe it’s the comfort level. Albane Valenzuela, the fourth-ranked woman in the World Amateur Golf Rankings who lost in the finals of last year’s U.S. Women’s Amateur, has played in six majors including the 2016 ANA Inspiration. In fact, all of the 20-year-old’s starts in professional events have been in majors so she’s as at ease as someone with an (a) by her name can be in this setting.
Maybe it’s the lack of distractions. Stanford, where Valenzuela is a sophomore, is on spring break this week and her face lit up like a child on Christmas morn when she let everyone know that she wasn’t missing a single class.
Maybe it’s the Callaway EPIC driver she’s had in the bag for a couple of months, one her coach Anne Walker took out of her own bag and gave to her star player. “You can’t put on 10 pounds of muscle and be 10 yards shorter,” Walker told her. “It’s got to be the equipment.”
Maybe a little of all of those things contributed to Valenzuela’s 5-under 67 on Thursday at the Dinah Shore Tournament Course in the ANA Inspiration. But more than anything it was the perspective of having her brother, Alexis, caddying for her that allowed the Swiss girl with the Spanish name who lives in Palo Alto to plant herself firmly on the first page of the leaderboard early in the season’s first major.
“I love having him on the bag,” Valenzuela said of her younger sibling. “This is our third tournament together. I played the European Am with him and the U.S. Women’s Amateur and finished second twice. So he’s always there with me. I just get really good vibes with him.”
On the range, on the course during the round and on the putting green afterward, Alexis Valenzuela seems like a typical, happy younger brother. He’s also a fine caddie, meticulously cleaning clubs and making sure his sister has her cell phone after the round. Unless you knew, you’d never suspect that Alexis didn’t speak until he was 5 years old.
When Alexis was 3, the Valenzuelas were told that their son had autism and might never walk or talk. There was heartache. Questions. Grief. But the family refused to give up. They sent their son to a Catholic school in Geneva with an aide by his side. The nuns helped and even though Alexis had to repeat kindergarten, after that he kept up. Now 16, Alexis speaks fluent French, English and Spanish and is on pace to graduate from high school.
“After years of therapy (speech and behaviour therapy, psychotherapy) I lead a normal life,” Alexis wrote on his fundraising website AlexisForAutism.com. “I am in high school, speak three languages and I’m working on becoming a scratch golfer and competing to earn a golf scholarship. I am trying to follow in my sister’s footsteps.”
She beams in his presence. Albane’s love for her brother is evident in every step the two take together. He was the subject of her entrance essay for Stanford. And he is a big part of why she is close to the lead in a major championship. Not for the clubs that he pulled or the advice that she gave. But because of the perspective and the love that he provides.
“I’m so grateful to be back here (at the ANA Inspiration),” Albane said. “I played well two years ago so I really wanted to come back. Not getting the shot (at playing here) last year was obviously a bummer. But getting the experience back this year is amazing. I have no words.”
Another golf tournament will take place on June 27 at the Golf Club of Geneva. It won’t be a major. But it will be also be amazing beyond words. Alexis Valenzuela is the host.
“This fund-raising event is in support of the research project focused on early intervention from the Geneva University and supported by the Fondation Pôle Autisme,” he wrote on his website.
After his sister’s opening round in the desert on Thursday, Alex said he had already raised $40,000.
Even good golf in a major seems pretty insignificant compared to that.
To learn more, go to: https://www.alexisforautism.com